In the new research project BioFresh, scientists and catering firms are collaborating to rethink and improve canteen food for young people and adults. The goal is to get people to eat more vegetables at lunch time.

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  Geir Håbesland (Brandgarden)

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The authorities in Norway want to increase the consumption of healthy food in the population in general. The Norwegian Directorate of Health has a special focus on potentials to increase young people’s consumption of seafood and vegetables.

The research project BioFresh will address some of these challenges. The aim of the project is to increase the consumption of Norwegian vegetables grown in greenhouses, such as tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, sweet peppers and herbs. The four-year project funded by the Research Council of Norway and is headed by Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), with Nofima, PlantChem, the University of Stavanger and Brandgarden as research partners. We are collaborating with ISS Facility AS in the part of the project focusing on innovation in canteens.

Research and innovation in canteens

Innovation and research use different methods. While research primarily aims to acquire new knowledge and test hypotheses, the goal of innovation processes is to come up with something that creates value, be it a new product or a new discovery that inspires new ideas and value creation.

BioFresh encompasses both research and innovation. In the research part, we want to ensure greater variation in menus, and are analysing attractiveness in salad bars. The goal is to compose salad bars full of colourful, fresh greenhouse vegetables for different seasons, with emphasis on variety in colour and flavour. With a view to increasing cost efficiency and reducing waste in canteens, we are also going to study storage conditions and the quality of fresh vegetables, in terms of colour, firmness and taste.

In the innovation part of the project, we set up simple experiments or tests, and observe what happens. We share the lessons learned from the experiments with the project team, and the process continues with the new input. This method is both quick and inexpensive, and enables us to modify our plans quickly, as necessary. These kinds of experiments can provide answers that we can test more thoroughly through research, as necessary, for example using statistical calculations of effects focusing on attractiveness or food waste. Finally, we have created new solutions or products that have already undergone many rounds of testing.

With the goal of getting people to eat more greenhouse vegetables, we started out by looking at the lunch menu in canteens at three different workplaces and one upper secondary school. We wanted to see what was on offer, how many people eat lunch in the canteen, what items they choose, and what influences their choice of lunch – among working adults and school pupils. In the school canteen, we also paid particular attention to attractive fish dishes.

Bread roll with ketchup, rather than fish and salad

We found that young people were not very interested in fish dishes. When we visited the school, the canteen staff tried to tempt the pupils to choose the warm dish of the day, which was salmon and cheese bake. The dish looked very nice and was served with warm vegetables, cooked from frozen produce. The chef ran an enthusiastic marketing campaign, but they nevertheless only sold a few salmon dishes. Less than 6% of the potential customers at the school chose the salmon dish, and most of these were adults (school employees). We were told that Fish & Chips is the most popular fish dish among the pupils, but that even then, some pupils only wanted chips.

The pupils’ favourite lunch dish was a ham and cheese roll, preferably made with white bread. They could also buy “Yesterday’s roll” at a discount, microwaved and served with ketchup and “Piffi” seasoning. The young people we spoke to said that this felt like more of a meal than a salad, although it was nutritionally inferior.

The school in the study is trying to motivate young people to choose a healthy lifestyle. For some time the pupils have been offered a weekly exercise session on Thursdays. The pupils who attend this class get a free snack afterwards to the value of NOK 30 from the canteen. This snack might be a home-made smoothie, prepackaged porridge, crispbread with topping, a cereal bar, yoghurt or fruit. This measure was initiated to encourage increased physical activity, and some 30–40 young people took advantage of the offer each Thursday. The measure was financed by the county authority and the school, and is currently still ongoing.

Salad needs proteins

The consumption of vegetables was significantly lower in the school than in the workplace canteens we studied. In the latter, the salad bars were popular, as an accompaniment to hot and cold lunches alike. However, after having talked to canteen guests, we got the impression that meat and other proteins were absolutely essential for people to choose salad. We heard statements such as “I need some real food too, not just lettuce leaves”. Examples of other popular salad proteins were fish, mussels, prawns, eggs, cheese, beans and peas. However, the canteen staff had to limit the supply of meat (especially chicken) and other proteins, simply because they were too expensive. Financial considerations seem to play a key role both for what was on the menu in all the canteens and for what kind of lunch people chose. We nevertheless observed that the canteens used a wide variety of colourful vegetables in their salad bars and in various dishes.

Challenging framework conditions

While the people who ate in the workplace canteens could help themselves at the salad bar, this option is not available in the school canteen. The catering company has a salad bar at other schools, but at this particular school there is not enough space. This is a relatively new school, but the kitchen and the sales outlet are too small to house the canteen services that could have been provided. The canteen staff were eager to offer the pupils good, healthy food, but found it challenging to make this happen, especially in light of their budget.

Unlike many workplace canteens, the school canteen is not subsidised meaning the prices are relatively high for the pupils. Filled bread rolls and the cooked meal of the day were cheap in the school canteen. The price of a salad was about twice that for the same amount of salad that the adults ate in the company canteens, which are subsidised by the employers. Generally, the prices in the school canteen were much higher than in the workplace canteens.

Less than 20% of the pupils and employees at the school ate a meal in the school canteen. In addition to the pupils reporting that the canteen food was poor value for money, the canteen also faced strong competition, as there is a McDonald’s and a Big Bite in a nearby shopping centre. This is challenging for the school canteen.

In the workplace canteens, the premises posed challenges linked to offering vegetables in the way the canteen staff would like. All the workplace canteens had salad bars, but a lack of space meant that vegetables from greenhouses often had to be stored in a refrigerator at too low a temperature, to the detriment of their taste and quality. For example, tomatoes taste best when stored at at least12°C.

Attractiveness and less waste

The initial study identified several areas with potential for improvement as well as a number of challenges. Schools, local authorities and county authorities seldom subsidise school canteens. With few guests and low willingness to pay, the menu in school canteens tends to be limited and tailored to the few that use it. Is there a way to avoid these kinds of financial bottlenecks? One solution could be that the county authorities, as the owners of upper secondary schools, subsidise canteen operations, like many companies do. Another alternative could be for parents to contribute financially through a subscription scheme or top-up payment card system. Our impression is that there is a huge potential for school canteens to double or triple their market share if the parties mentioned are willing to take some simple steps.

There may also be other ways to get young people in schools to eat more salads and fish dishes with vegetables. Based on the observations we made when we visited the canteens, we assume that attractiveness and creativity in the range of these kinds of dishes are central, and we are going to investigate this further. Among other things, we want to study colours in meals, because we eat with our eyes first. Red and green can be provided by tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and herbs. Blue represents the sea and fish as an ingredient. By combining colours and ingredients to create attractive, tempting dishes, and by providing variety in the menu, we want to encourage more people to eat good, healthy ingredients. In this work, we will largely be working with the chefs at ISS Facility Services AS, who are providing the culinary expertise in the project. We scientists have knowledge about raw materials, technology and food safety. Knowledge about innovation is being provided by Nofima and Brandgarden.

In the workplace canteens, we will examine whether including meat and fish in a salad bar makes people eat more vegetables. We will also investigate whether new varieties of tomatoes can reduce waste when the tomatoes are cut up. Tomatoes with little flavour that lose a lot of liquid during cutting pose a major challenge in the companies’ salad bars. We have already started doing tests in this area.

Many possibilities

To understand consumer needs, we can monitor trends or undertake specific analyses and surveys. Once we understand what the consumers want, we can design an offering to match.

We know that salad bars provide great opportunities for Norwegian greenhouse vegetables. A wide range of raw materials of different qualities, colours, shapes and varieties can help to make salad bars even more tempting. However, greenhouse vegetables can also be used as ingredients in, for example, attractive fish lunch dishes.

We also believe that future innovations will contribute to more people eating healthier food for lunch. Social media could be used to allow easy access to product information. Menus can be published on the school or workplace’s intranet. Mobile technology can also be used to provide additional information about meals, for example, links to reviews of the various dishes. These kinds of tools can also affect the consumers’ choice of meals, but this is not part of our current project. The future will likely provide a wealth of new opportunities.

About BioFresh

The BioFresh project is funded by the Research Council of Norway and will run from 2016 to 2020. The main objective is to increase the consumption of greenhouse vegetables in Norway. Relevant ingredients are tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, sweet peppers and herbs.

The goal is to produce fresh, healthy greenhouse vegetables of high quality in Norway all year round without using fossil fuels and chemical pesticides and without producing waste.

NIBIO is heading the project and the research partners are Nofima, PlantChem, the University of Stavanger and Brandgarden.

The scientists are also collaborating with Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture (in the Netherlands), Hasselt University (in Belgium), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and the Norwegian Horticultural Growers Association (NGF).

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